17 October 2012

Startide Rising

Startide Rising by David Brin
1984 Hugo Award Winner (1983 Nebula)
Got it from: Public Library
458 Pages

A few hundred years in the future, humanity has already learned enough about genetic manipulation and space travel that the spaceship Streaker is piloted by dolphins, some humans and a chimpanzee.  After discovering thousands of moon-sized derelict spaceships, the crew is chased by several galactic races operating under the belief that the earthlings have learned something about the original sentient species of the galaxy.  After a wild chase, Streaker crash lands on a world surfaced primarily by water.  With the galaxy’s most devious and violent races battling for the chance to take the prize from the humans, the crew of the must find a way to resurrect Streaker and escape the hordes of murderous Galactics. 

Egg layin’
Before I even finished this book, I started writing my review.  I was having so much fun and wanted to get a head start.  This is how it had started when I was just about halfway done:

Perhaps it was just because I was caught completely unawares, but it is more than a little difficult to suspend disbelief when most the characters in Startide Rising are dolphins…well, there’s a chimp too.  There is no testing the waters either, you open the book and within the first few pages you’re asked to believe in some pretty wild and crazy stuff.

No, it’s not a little difficult, it’s impossible, but Startide Rising is brilliant because it basically says, yeah this is crazy stuff but who cares, now look at this over here.  Instead of worrying too much about really specific details of uplift or daily life living with dolphins on a space-faring vessel, Brin just makes the dolphins and the circumstances of their arrival on the strange water/metal planet so outrageously funny that you can’t help a basically constant stream of chortling throughout the entire book.

A shipwrecked crew of dolphins, humans and one chimp are in danger of being enslaved by crazed egg-laying, war mongering sentients from somewhere in the galaxy, yet the pace and tenor remains light-hearted and goofy. 

Seriously though, if you’re not exclaiming “Turtle bites!” by the end of this book, you’ve probably had a humor lobotomy and I don’t know how to help you. 

So, yeah… I’ll still stand behind my initial excitement.  This is a pretty damn fun book to read, but it wasn’t long after I “penned” this little bit that the book took a turn for the philosophical and became a bit more thoughtful or at least more thought-provoking.  And more than that, it seemed that whatever the issue might have been, what strikes you is how human every one of the characters feel.  Human, as in even the dolphins feel like people, but also as in some really great and natural dialogue. 

This was surprising because when I realized I was going to be reading about dolphins, I was worried a lot of dialogue would feel extra-contrived and stiff and just dumb.  I really fought it at first, and I lost.  There was a great combination of some silly dolphin mannerisms which didn’t try to hide that they were dolphins, but also the way that Brin used poetry to not only highlight how different they were, but also really put readers in another frame of mind.  I was clearly all for it.

Phrase turnin’
Yup.  I was pretty crazy about the use poetry, numbers and symbols.  The poetry was great and the numbers/symbols/crazy spellings were done only enough to be fun and/or meaningful.

I’ve griped about this in the case of Downbelow station, but also noted that it was something that I normally enjoy.  Here’s a brief quote, but one that is characteristic of the way Brin uses the tactic sparingly or only when it adds to the story:

“?” Tsh’t queried confusedly.
Gillian’s expression was thoughtful, as if she was looking at something very far away.  “I think I’m starting to understand what’s been going on…”
Pg 416

This is just one quick example, maybe it isn’t enough to really give you the flavor, but between dolphins and a psi-adept human it really makes sense that communication would change pure emotion would seep into their language.

The poetry really brought this book to a whole ‘nother level for me.  It was the icing atop the cherry atop the icing on the cake (What!  Is that possible?  Yes.  Yes it is.)  Not only was it something that no other Hugo winner had tried, but it gave the book much richer texture than you normally find in a madcap adventure type novel of any genre and particularly of Hugo winning SF.  The book was farcical, whimsical and just plain weird but also serious, sad and heartfelt.

When both flotillas simultaneously fired volleys of missiles on him, he tried to evade, of course.  It would be unsporting to give up.
But he didn’t have the heart for a major effort.  Instead, while he waited, he worked on a poem.

*The saddest of things
To a dolphin—even me—
Is to die alone….*
Pg 443

The Dolphin’s poetry worked so well to convey the richness of themes and variety emotion so well that having completed the book, it doesn’t seem possible to have told the story without it.

Within a couple pages of beginning, I was sure I was going to hate Startide Rising.  After just a few chapters, I already loved it.  Startide Rising can shift pretty impulsively between philosophical poetry to farce, from wry humor to somber human expression.  Whether midshipman youth or an uplifted species all characters take part in a goofy free-for-all fighting for equal treatment, wise cracks and just dealing with how weird the universe can be.  I could see some readers a little frustrated by the jumping around, or maybe weirded out by human/dolphin sex, but I loved it.  Yes, I just said that, I loved the dolphin sex (I can see the billboards now).


Universe 4/5
Social/Political Climate 5/5
Dialogue 5/5
Scientific Wonders 5/5
Characters 5/5

Overall 24/25

The die being cast...one last time
This week I am finishing up The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge (awesome) and now I’m going to cram in some audiobook time to finish The Uplift War by David Brin.

Next week’s books are The Vor Game by Lois McMaster Bujold and A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.


  1. I for one enjoyed "The Uplift War" a little more, and did find the dolphins, their dialogue and mannerism a bit contrived. The poetry and symbolism is the book's strong point, and the twist about the genetically-evolved, villainous Orca were pretty cool.

    Glad to see you are "catching up." A few reviews in short succession! I told you so :)

    As for "The Snow Queen" - it really is awesome, even if at time queerly insipid and the main protagonists a little hard to emphathise with - they are just too self-absorbed, but at least they are vindicated at the end. Full of wonderful moments. Who would have ever thought that a wind instrument could become mortally dangerous! I look forward to your notes.

    1. You're such a contrarian Emil ;) I've started Uplift War now so we'll see if we're at least on the same page with that one. I am curious what you mean though. You liked the dolphin's poetry but not the straight dialogue? Was it just that you liked that poetry was a part of the book or you thought when the dolphins communicated in poem, they did it better?

      You're right though, the Orca experimentation was pretty sweet. I actually stayed up 'till like 2:30 one night because I couldn't put this one down and the Orca exploded my sleep deprived brain!

    2. I liked the poetry as it I could almost hear dolphin's squeaking :)

      Early on I found the dialogue naive and juvenile. Maybe Brinn purposefully did it this way to convey a sense of the dolphins infancy with regards to Uplift. There are some similar elements in "The Uplift War." The latter's action sequences and intrigue were a little better. Come to think of it, I read "Startide Rising" after the gritty "Altered Carbon." I think most novels would feel a wee bit juvenile following that action-packed, no bars hold romp.

    3. I can understand that. It seem to recall that early on someone gets called a "turd swallower". Juvenile, yeah probably. I guess I thought of the dolphins as just totally goofy. I forget what chapter it was the Brin even said "the universe is weird". Just this morning I was listening to the chapter in Uplift War when the Thenninin's clients chose neo-fins as their moderator (or whatever they were called) and it was such a huge joke on everyone there and people were actually laughing!

      But I like your thought too that it might have been for conveying their "infancy", as you say. That sounds smarter :)

  2. Great review! I read "Sundiver" and "Startide Rising" a few years ago, but somehow never went on to read "The Uplift War". Your review reminds me of all the things I liked about "Startide Rising", and makes me want to get on with reading the rest of the trilogy. I'll look forward to your thoughts on that one, as well, and maybe I'll read it at the same time :).

    1. Thanks! You better get started, I'm 4 chapters in!

    2. I've got like 13 hours on an airplane ahead of me early next week. I'm sure I'll catch up!

    3. Oh it's on now! Does that mean you'll be reviewing it at Tethyan Books?

      Also, I noticed your next review is The Vor Game and I've got that one coming up next week (right after Uplift War). We are totally going head-to-head!!

    4. Yep, I plan to! I might actually have to knock back the Vor Game for a couple of days, because I want to make sure to have a horror novel review up before the end of October. It'll be fun to see if we end up having similar reactions to the books or not!

  3. This sounds like a crazy book that I might just have to check out. Haven't read any David Brin before.

    1. This was my first Brin experience. Based on what I've read of The Uplift War so far, I'd be willing to bet his work encompasses a wide range of styles. I'm not sure I know your tastes well enough to say this one would suit you or not, but I think the poetry and silliness alone are worth anyone's time.

    2. I'm always pleased by someone who doesn't take themselves too seriously, and Brin sounds like one of those. I'll just have to try and see.

  4. I have to say that I liked this one more than Sundiver or The Uplift War, mainly because it was just so fun and crazy. I also like the fact that the ultimate fate of Streaker remains unknown (at least until the end of Brin's second, far inferior, trilogy).

    1. Mmm... You'll see that I ended up enjoying The Uplift War a little more. It moved me pretty seriously. But I absolutely agree about how much fun this is. My wife refused to believe me that I could be reading a serious book in which dolphins were main characters but damn if this isn't one of the funnier Hugo winners...


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